In the winter of 1973 I encountered a strange and enigmatic man from West Virginia named Richard Rose and nothing has been the same for me since. I was in my first year of law school at the time, living at home with my mother to save on expenses and keep her company, my father having died suddenly two years before. One night my friend Leigh, who had recently been spending a lot of time with a group called the Pyramid Zen Society, talked me into going with him to hear Rose, whom he called a Zen master. I had refused several previous attempts on Leigh’s part to get me to a meeting, but he persisted, and each time he brought it up his descriptions and stories of Rose became more superlative, until Rose had begun to take on a magical, almost mythic, quality.
"Leigh," I said, "I have no interest in these things." Which was true. I had no interest in philosophy or religion, or anything even remotely introspective for that matter. I believed I knew who I was and where I was going. After law school I would get married, have kids, make money, maybe have a couple of discrete affairs with secretaries or friends' wives, then retire comfortably and play with the grandchildren. Life. What's to think about? You do the best you can.
"Dave," he said, "you could die any minute. We’re all just killing time until we die. Do you understand what I’m saying?"
"Yeah, I guess so," I said. The truthful answer would have been, "No." Even now, after years of inner work, the hard fact of my personal death remains elusive. Yet, for some reason I agreed to go with Leigh that night, and a half hour after we hung up he pulled into my driveway.
We drove through a light snow to the University of Pittsburgh where the meeting was held and I spent most of the ride wishing I was back home watching hockey. When we arrived the room was already packed. We made our way through the noisy crowd to what appeared to be the last two empty seats in the room, one on each side of an older man in a red flannel shirt. As we were sitting down my attention was drawn to two attractive women nearby. It occurred to me that I would at least have something pleasant to look at during the meeting. They were engaged in an animated conversation that seemed to focus on the men in their lives.
"Well, what Alex doesn’t know won’t hurt him," I heard one say. "If I were you, I’d just go with the flow." They both laughed. The old man next to me was listening, too.
"You can go with the flow if you want to," he said to them loudly, "but every flow I ever saw flowed straight down the sewer." He and a few others who heard him laughed, but the women didn’t.
The room was filled with the kind of colorful, eclectic crowd that gathered in the early Seventies when you put the word "Zen" on some posters and tacked them up around a college campus. I felt out of place and impatient for the meeting to get underway. The quicker it started, the better chance I had of at least catching the last period of the hockey game. I turned to ask Leigh when Rose was due to show up, but he was talking to someone on the other side of him. Everyone in the room seemed to be talking at once. For something to do, I listened in on some of the conversations. Nearby two long-haired youths were extolling the power of drugs to expand the mind. They seemed to have taken their own advice before coming that evening.
"Expand the mind?" The old man next to me chimed in again. "You mean your heads just get bigger and bigger until God himself has to move over and make room for 'em?" He kept a straight face until Leigh and a few others laughed, then he laughed too, with great abandonment and glee. The rest of the room quieted down somewhat at the sound of the laughter, until only a few conversations remained, the most noticeable of which was between three middle-aged men who sounded and acted like professors. They were discussing the reason for man's existence while occasionally glancing around the room, perhaps to measure the effect of their words on anyone who might be listening.
The old man next to me focused his attention on them for a few moments before interrupting. "I'll tell you why you exist," he said in a voice loud enough to be heard over the other conversations. The room got suddenly quiet. "You're here to fertilize the female, work yourself to death, then drop dead and fertilize the earth." Several people laughed but this time the old man did not join in.
The tallest and most imposing of the three professors looked condescendingly at the "rube" in the flannel shirt who had interrupted him.
"Are you saying, then, that we're just sophisticated animals?" he asked.
"No," the old man smiled, "we’re not a bit sophisticated." There was loud laughter, most of it in our vicinity.
The professor shook his head with dramatic sadness. "We'll never build a better world with that kind of attitude."
"Spare me," the old man replied, his voice filled with disgust. "What are there, four billion ants on this ant hill? And you think they’re gonna get their heads together about anything except breeding?"
The same people laughed, Leigh the loudest, and I finally realized that the old man next to me was Richard Rose. So far I didn't think much of him, but he did have a novel way of beginning a meeting, or whatever this was. I turned sideways in my chair to get a better look at him. On the ride over Leigh had tried to explain to me that Rose had had some kind of "enlightenment" experience when he was thirty, and that he seemed to have some unusual powers. I had to admit that he had a commanding presence, but he looked more like a longshoreman than a mystic--short, broad shouldered, and powerfully built. He was in his late fifties or so, and mostly bald. What remained of his hair was white and cut close to his head. His clothes were clean, but well-worn, giving the impression of a man without much money. Leigh told me he'd written several books, but his thick, vein-lined hands looked like they'd be more at home with an ax than a typewriter. As I surveyed him, he glanced briefly over at me and I was struck by his piercing pale blue eyes. He had heavy, hooded eyelids, giving him an almost oriental look, and his sparse white goatee added to this impression.
The professor seemed irritated. "I am merely speaking of a simple desire to improve the world. A basic..."
"No one who has seen the Truth would want to change anything but his own erroneous view of things," Rose said forcefully. "Forget about changing the world. There's something much greater and more important to be done. Each person must be concerned with saving his own soul."
"That’s right," said a woman near the back of the room. She was in her forties, perhaps, with a few streaks of gray in her long black hair. She wore a lot of jewelry and a loose fitting dress that disguised her ample figure. "God placed us here on earth for a reason," she said in a slow, deliberate manner. "Every human is given the opportunity to learn the lessons necessary to become complete and rejoin God."
Rose looked at her. "That’s not what I said. If you believe that, you’re kidding yourself. The idea that life is an education for the glorification of God is absurd. Why would an omnipotent being create a bunch of ignorant people then torture them to make them better?" Rose spoke with the ease and manner of an educated man, but his accent and grammar had a slightly backwoods flavor, and he pronounced certain words with an unusual inflection, such as "glory-fee-cation."
The woman’s face reddened. "You have some rather unorthodox presumptions about God."
"What makes you think I have any presumptions about God at all? You're the one that used the word, not me." He looked away from her and spoke to everyone.
"The way people use the word 'God' is shameless name dropping, that's all. We take too big a step when we conjure up some cosmic intelligence who’s supposed to transcend all time and space, then pretend to know him on a first-name basis. Everyone tosses the word 'God' around like they know what it means, but they don’t know the first thing. Overuse has drained it of any power it once had. Everybody feels so comfortable with the word, ‘God,’ they don’t feel the need--the necessity--to actually go out and find God. To become God."
The professor spoke up again. "We'll, since you seem to be such an authority on the subject, perhaps you can settle an old philosophic question for us. Does God exist?"
"Yes," Rose said quietly, "but you don't."
There was a long silence that made me, and probably most everyone else, uneasy. Rose just sat there. Finally, a woman in her mid-twenties wearing what appeared to be a waitress’s uniform broke the silence. Her face reflected an unusual mix of strength and vulnerability that I found very attractive.
"Don’t you believe in helping God make this a better world?" she asked.
"What makes you think God needs any help?" Rose smiled warmly and continued to look at her as if he expected a response. The woman did not speak, but she seemed unable to look away from him. The room fell silent. Rose held his gaze on her for awhile longer and the silence seemed to deepen.
"Don't take life seriously," he said finally. "It doesn't take you seriously. The Cosmos is laughing at you." Then he looked away from her. When he did, she shook her head almost imperceptibly, as if her thoughts had just returned. Rose pulled an open can of soda from under his chair and took a drink. A studious young man with wire-rimmed glasses raised his hand politely. Rose nodded in his direction.
"Mister Rose, you obviously feel you have something to offer the world, but you talk so disparagingly about people."
"There is no world," Rose said. "There are no people."
"Don't you care about humanity?" someone called out.
"Yes, some of them. The ones that can be helped." He paused a moment as if choosing his words. "I'm not out to save the masses. It's impossible to do and I'm smart enough to know it. I talk to individuals. If in my entire lifetime I can get a handful of people to reach a few plateaus above their current state of confusion, I'll be lucky."
"But aren’t we all God’s children?" someone called out. "What about the brotherhood of man?"
"Membership in the clan does not mean we’re equal. Is a baby equal to a dying man? Is a genius equal to an idiot? No. And people are on different rungs of the spiritual ladder, too. Most of mankind is on the lower rungs and there’s not much that can be done for them. They’re too mired in animal behavior to look for something more out of life. All they know--or want to know--is sex, booze, fighting, power, that sort of thing.
"What I presume, though," Rose went on, "is that there are a few people out there who are looking for something more. Looking for something real, something that will stick with them. Something they won't end up regretting twenty years down the road. People who aren't satisfied just living out their lives as ignorant animals. These are the people I might be able to help. They want to know who's living out this experience, and what might continue to live and experience after death. And if I'm lucky enough to run into those people and they ask for help, then I'll try to work with them any way I can. But before anyone can be helped they have to become somebody who is capable of being helped. It's foolish to bail out a leaky boat without also plugging up the hole."
"You mean a person has to change his way of life," Leigh said.
"Right, right." Rose said enthusiastically. "You get attached to the flesh, but after awhile you realize you're no better than a dog in the street. Of course, our egos offer all sorts of noble pretenses for indulging in pleasure--poetic rationalizations about love, and 'experiencing life to the fullest.' But eventually we run out of excuses, and by the time the ego lets loose of us, it's usually too late to do anything about what's up ahead. That's why so many people die screaming."
I expected him to at least smile at his last remark, but he didn't.
"People are just doing the best they can," a woman near the back of the room called out. "Following their bliss as they see it. "
Rose stared at his hands for a moment then looked up again. "Look, if you ever want to discover anything of importance," he said with great seriousness, "you've got to get this Pollyanna crap out of your heads. People think they can indulge in whatever whim overpowers them at the moment, and that somehow this 'spontaneity' is going to transform them into a wonderful spiritual creature that God just can't resist loving. This is nonsense. Life isn't pleasure, it's constant struggle driven by relentless tension. Look out the window. It's a bloody carnage out there. Everything’s trying to eat something else, just so it can stay alive long enough to reproduce and provide more food and fertilizer for this slaughterhouse."
"You're condemning us for trying to be happy," someone said.
"I'm not condemning anybody. What people do with their lives is their business. Besides, you can't talk someone into virtue. You might as well try to talk a goat out of eating. People have to find out for themselves what has value in their lives and what doesn't. What's worth living for. What's worth doing."
"But you're advising us against looking for happiness..."
"No, no. Don't presume to know what I'm doing. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm doing," Rose laughed. "It's better that way. But I do know better than to give direct advice. Nobody takes it, anyway. Otherwise, everyone would start off at least as smart as his parents."
For the last half hour or so I had been looking for a chance to insert myself into the proceedings. My initial discomfort with the unfamiliar situation had subsided and I had been trying to think of a question to ask, not so much because I was interested in the answer, but because I wanted to show Leigh and the rest of the room my "stuff." Most of what Rose said made no sense to me and it seemed that the rest of the people in the room were incapable of offering a strong enough intellectual challenge to Rose to pin him down. I was, after all, a sharp Jewish lawyer-in-training and, as unusual as Rose was, he still stumbled over words, had a homespun manner, and came from West Virginia. In other words, I felt I could take him. There was a brief silence after his last remarks so I jumped in.
"I'm new to all this, Mister Rose," I began, "so perhaps you can enlighten me." I slid to the furthest edge of my seat before turning towards him, like an attorney facing a hostile witness.
"Why should a person give up his natural instincts and ego in a world where only the strong survive?" I said. "Who’s to say which behaviors we should have and which we should toss away? What's wrong with having a multi-faceted personality, if for no other reason than to protect ourselves from those who might want to take it away and replace it with their own agenda?"
It wasn’t totally on the subject he was addressing, perhaps, but it sounded good. I was proud of myself. I wanted to look at Leigh to see his reaction but I felt I should stare at Rose during the showdown.
Rose looked me over for a few seconds before answering. "There's not a damn thing wrong with it," he said firmly, "provided you don't mind being a hopeless robot all your life."
Then he turned away and addressed the entire room. "Now, for instance, this guy here," he said, gesturing to me. "There's no doubt that in his own mind he thinks he's very clever and that he's someone of great importance. He likes to think he's blessed with a superior intellect and is destined to do great things. He thinks he’s better than everyone else so he never takes part in what’s going on around him. He just daydreams about women and thinks up ways to exercise his ego. But the truth is, he's confused and miserable. He doesn't know anything, and he's never accomplished anything of value. All he does is get by through manipulation, playing petty games with himself and everyone around him.
"He'll probably choose a career that favors deceit and manipulation. Maybe he'll even end up being one of the hucksters who makes the rules for this madhouse. But it won't take away his misery. He lives in a self-imposed world of competitiveness and suspicion, always on guard against the rest of humanity, trying to protect his inflated self-importance. He's smug and ignorant, which is a bad combination. But even so, a part of him senses that something is terribly wrong with him, and he wonders why he's always on edge, why he's unable to enjoy even the most basic pleasures in life, like true human friendship."
When he finished the room stayed silent. I was unable to speak or even move. I sat motionless, my face burning with humiliation and anger. The deft sparring match I had envisioned was a one-punch fight. His words, delivered in smooth unbroken prose, left me stunned. I fought the urge to run. I wanted nothing more than to be someplace else, anyplace else. Was what I said so bad that I deserved what he just did to me? Who in the hell did he think he was?
But more importantly, how did he know these things? He was right and I knew it. Only the truth could hurt as badly as his words had. How could he know? How could he know and understand a stranger in that much complexity and detail?
Someone broke the silence and asked a question unrelated to my exchange with Rose and the meeting resumed. I heard very little for awhile, staying lost in my own thoughts, relieved to not be the focus of the attention I had so openly sought a few minutes before. I could remember every word he said. Every nuance of his tone and inflection was burned into me. I hated him for humiliating me, and yet there were other strange feelings beginning to form. I don't know how long I stayed within myself, but gradually I tuned back into the room and the sound of Rose's voice.
"If any of you people ever got serious about the work," he was saying, "one of the first things you'd discover is that you don't exist--at least not as you think you do. You look in the mirror now and you're tickled to death with what you see: 'Wow, look what God put on this earth to grace it and make other people jealous.' But after awhile you'll maybe realize that you're nothing but a blob of protoplasm waiting to die and get put in a hole so you won't stink up the place. That's all you are, as far as what you can prove. Everything else is just unfounded belief and wishful thinking."
"Sounds awfully negative to me," a young voice called out. A number of heads nodded in agreement.
Rose smiled. "A negative reaction to a negative situation might turn out to be quite positive."
Suddenly the questions started coming faster.
"Will your system make me happy?"
"I don't know about that, but if you're like me, you'll wind up with a high degree of immunity."
"But are you happy?" someone challenged.
"I'm free of happiness."
"Would you say, then, that you have perfect, eternal contentment?"
"Yes, you could put it that way."
"How do you know you're not deceiving yourself?"
"I have no self left to deceive."
"Are you a success?"
"Yes, I believe so. I know exactly what it is I want to do with my life, and I spend a hundred percent of my time doing it. But if you mean money, no, I never cared about money. If you have more than you need, it’s a curse.
"Fact is, though, you can use the principles of spiritual work to get whatever you want out of life--money, power, fame--any kind of success or pleasure. The mechanism for achievement is the same no matter where you point it. But sooner or later, life--or death--will bring you face to face with the only thing that has any real value. I spent the first thirty years of my life looking for it, and the last twenty-five trying to find people who might also be looking for it. Not because I want to change them, but because I might be able to drop them a hint. To say, 'Hey, you're banging your head against a wall that won't move,' or 'You're wasting your life on some pleasure trip or petty ego.'"
"What about love?" someone called out.
"What about it?" Rose shot back.
"Love between two people. There’s nothing petty about that."
"We may believe that someone loves us," Rose said, "but if we live long enough we’ll discover that they really only love that which we can give them. Everyone wants desperately to believe in love, though, because we’re so lonely."
No one said anything so he went on.
"This overuse of the word 'love' is a curse. I lived for twenty years with my wife, and never once did I tell her I loved her. I consider it a lie. Everybody’s got a different definition of love and they’re all wrong. There’s no way to communicate love with words. If you respect your woman, you prove it. Your life proves it. You give your life to that woman and those children, that's all."
"And people will see it, right?" someone said.
"It doesn't matter if they see it or not. It only matters if you know it in yourself and she knows it in herself. That's what counts. But to go around popping off about how much you love people..." He shook his head. "These words mean nothing."
"How about a mother’s love for her children?" someone called out.
"The selflessness of motherhood is beautiful," Rose said quietly. "There’s an unseen umbilical connection between mother and child throughout their entire lifetime, and perhaps beyond. But it’s also true that giving birth to a child is the same as killing someone. In both cases you’re doing something you don’t really understand."
There was a stunned silence in the room as Rose continued.
"The worst thing about this love and happiness obsession is that it keeps us from taking an honest look at life. If we did, we'd recognize our existence for what is--a moment of consciousness between two oblivions. Every day we live on the edge of the precipice and with the next step, the lights might go out. So the only answer is to make the trip. And until you make the trip, you have no validity."
"The trip?" someone asked.
"Across and back," Rose said. "Die while living."
"You mean like satori."
"No, I mean an Absolute condition. The final Experience. Enlightenment."
There were a lot of puzzled expressions.
"Some of the popular Zen books talk about achieving satori, which is really nothing more than the 'Wow' experience," Rose went on. "A fellow says, 'I went to this ashram and stayed there so many months or years, then one day it hits me. ‘Wow, I got it!’ So I had some tea with the head master and we went away laughing together because we both got it.’" Rose frowned. "This is not Enlightenment. Because if this man had experienced Enlightenment they would have carried him out on a stretcher--it's that drastic. You don't die and then laugh and say 'Wow!' Death is more final than that."
Another long silence. Then someone asked the question that hung in the air.
"Have you made the trip?"
"Yes, I've made the trip. But what I know isn't going to do you any good. The reason more people don't discover the Truth is that they want to receive it bodily and personally, preferably as a gift from another person so they don’t have to work for it." Rose chuckled. "But it's impossible to pick up through relative thinking that which another man has discovered through a direct-mind experience. All words--even my words--are useless. If you want to know, you've got to go there yourself. And to go there you have to pass through death."
The room stayed uncomfortably silent while Rose looked around at everyone.
"I'm a discoverer, not an orator," he said finally. "A discoverer tells you what he's found, regardless of the consequences to your peace of mind."
"What did you find," asked a young girl with a colorful headband. She spoke haltingly, as if afraid of the answer.
"Everything. And Nothing."
"You mean you became one with...."
"No, no. I became One. There's nothing to become one with."
He glanced around at the puzzled faces. "Don't think you're going to be able grasp this stuff logically, because you won't. I'm talking about a state beyond words, a state beyond the mind, even."
Rose paused for a moment as if considering whether to continue.
"This whole planet is fiction," he said. "A picture show. Sometimes it can be a rather engrossing picture show, but that doesn't make it real. Our heads are programmed to get puffed up with all kinds of infatuations and obsessions. Some of them use up years and decades of our lives. Then when the spell breaks on one of ‘em you shake your head and wonder, ‘What was that, a bubble?’ But you turn right around and get obsessed by something else. Entire lives pass this way, from one petty obsession to another. Eventually, if you’re lucky and if one of these obsessions doesn’t kill you, you come to realize that life is at best a dream, and at worst, a nightmare."
"But you've already escaped the nightmare," a boy in the front row said. "Why would you want to stick around and inhabit our dreams?"
"Oh, I still exist in the nightmare," Rose said. "Everyone on earth exists in the nightmare. The difference is that when you people die you'll just go into another nightmare. Then there's a tremendous agony that accompanies the realization you’re still not free. My job is to find five people and wake them up now in the hope that they'll each find five more people, and so on. In that way, mankind might be benefited."
The room stayed silent for a long time. Strangely, in the midst of the conflicting emotions that swirled inside me that night, the thought briefly crossed my mind that I actually wanted to be one of those five people. The desire startled me, and it lasted only a few seconds before I dismissed it. But for those few seconds it flashed with an intensity I had never before experienced in my thinking. I have since come to believe that thought and desire are capable of guiding, perhaps even creating, events. And so I sometimes think, probably overly dramatically, that the whole rocky course of my association with Richard Rose--living under constant confrontation in his house, practicing law in a backwoods West Virginia town, carrying a gun because the local Hare Krishnas put out a contract to have Rose and me killed, and all the rest of it--issued from that single transient desire to know what it was to be Awake.